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  • Debate: Has the Crucifix Become Italy's Cross To Bear?
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    As Pope John Paul II celebrated his silver anniversary, we discovered the waning faith of Italians. Fewer people are going to church every Sunday, and many are ignoring the Pope's directions to ban birth control and procreate. But just a week after those reports, a young judge, who ruled against keeping a crucifix hung in a classroom in Ofena, about 90 miles northeast of Roma, has set off a firestorm of debate in modern Italia.

    Adel Smith, an Islamic father who wanted the crucifix removed from his 6-year-old son's elementary school, brought the case to court and the young Judge Mario Montanaro sided with him. But legal experts - and some of the country's top politicians - are arguing that the judge's ruling is mistaken because of a 1924 law, leftover from Fascism, that requires crosses hang in Italian classrooms.

    This controversy has deeper meaning - and perhaps consequences - as Italy struggles to re-define its culture and beliefs amid a wave of immigration that is swiftly changing its population. Here, both sides of the raging argument about whether symbols of Catholicism belong in public Italian buildings:

    Crucifix should stay on the wall: Italian Catholics - like other ethnic groups - have their own special way of practicing their faith. Traditions and symbols - from the seven fishes of Christmas Eve to the Madonnina sitting on the lawn - reveal one's ethnicity as much as his religious identity. "In my judgment, the crucifix has always been considered not only a distinctive sign of a particular religious credo, but above all as a symbol of the values that are at the base of our Italian identity," has said Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who is considered a moral authority despite his ceremonial political role.

    He is not alone. The country's actual political leader, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and many members of his Forza Italia party also condemned the judge's decision. In response to the brewing brouhaha, the Pope himself told Wednesday's papal audience that the "crucifix is an eloquent symbol of a civilization of love."

    Even the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy distanced itself from Smith, who identifies himself as the president of the Association of Italian Muslims, according to recent reports. However, opponents have accused Smith of being a radical who recently defended Osama Bin Laden. "Christianity and its symbols are part of Italy's history, culture and art," said Omar Camiletti, an Italian Muslim and representative of the World Muslim League in Roma, according to The Telegraph of Calcutta, India.

    The official, who was supposed to hand deliver the court ruling to the Ofena school, refused to go on religious grounds and her replacement was escorted by police. Press and protestors, including a group of mothers holding up a banner that read "Keep your hands off that crucifix," surrounded the school, according to a recent article. Montanaro has had security with him at all times after receiving numerous death threats.

    So far, the Ofena school has kept the crucifix on the wall despite the court ruling. According to Italy's education department, the crucifixes in other schools will remain in place. The bottom-line: Italians may not practice their faith as fiercely as they once did, but 85 to 95 percent of the population still identifies itself as Catholic. This request to take down the cross forced Italians to re-affirm their identity and all that they associate with their culture. To many, the crucifix is as much a cultural symbol as pasta, Caruso or even the Italian flag.

    Religious symbols must come down: Ironically, the European Union is hosting a conference of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in Roma this weekend to discuss how inter-religious dialogue can combat terrorism and prejudice against the immigrants now entering many Western European countries. Today, Italy is home to an estimated 800,000 Muslims, and there are 20 million Muslims in total in Europe.

    Smith argues that having a crucifix in his son's first grade classroom is a violation of his constitutional right to equal treatment for everyone, regardless of his religious affiliations. Although few supporters have come forward, the Jewish community in Roma seems to agree with Smith. "We appreciate the positive values that Christians attribute to the cross, like peace and life, but we have had a negative history with the cross and what it represented for us, a sign of oppression and intolerance in the name of religion," said Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, the leader of Roma's small Jewish community, according to

    These leaders are hoping, however, that the current conflict does not interfere with progress already being made between Italian Catholics and immigrants with different religious and cultural backgrounds. Earlier this month, Berlusconi announced a desire to have legal immigrants vote in Italian elections, and the public appeared to support the suggestion. Also, a recent outpouring of sympathy for a group of foreigners, who died in the Mediterranean Sea near Sicily while trying to cross the border into Italy for a chance at economic prosperity, marked the beginning of better relations between Italians and the ever-growing immigrant communities.

    The argument for Smith and his supporters is that the definition of Italian culture must change and that symbols like the crucifix, which exclude those of different religions, have no place in the public buildings of a secular country. Efforts to welcome immigrants and tolerate differences - religious and cultural - must continue. Respect is at the heart of their argument, and a multicultural Italy is their goal.

    In the end: Regardless of which side one takes, questions remain: What makes Italy Italian? What makes you Italian? And how important is it to define yourself as Italian?

    Let me know what you think. Write to me at


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